What Was The Main Religion in Cambodia Before Buddhism?

What Was The Main Religion in Cambodia Before Buddhism?

One of my favorite places to visit is the country of Cambodia. Today Cambodia is a predominately Buddhist country, but that not always the case.

Before Buddhism was so prevalent in Cambodia, the main religion was Hinduism. In fact, Hinduism was the state religion of Cambodia for over 1000 years. The Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was originally built as a Hindu temple.

Cambodia today is about 95% Theravada Buddhist, even though much of Cambodia was founded on Hinduism’s religious principles.

Vishnu god statue in Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia
The Hindu Vishnu god statue in Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia’s Era of Hinduism

Hinduism arrived in Cambodia as early as the 1st Century. In fact, it can be said Hinduism is the oldest, if not one, of the oldest religions in Cambodia.

Hinduism Arrives in Cambodia

We’re not sure of the exact date that Hinduism arrived in Cambodia, but we know it was during the 1st century. Indians coming from the coasts of India traveled to all parts of Southeast Asia, including Cambodia. During their travels, they brought Hinduism with them.

The arrival of Hinduism into Cambodia is an example of how so many Indians left their homeland during this era to travel to parts of Southeast Asia, They traveled as far away as some parts of the Philippines.

Hinduism had a profound effect on Cambodia and the entire cultural and historical development in Southeast Asia. This is why you may find that there are many temples or cultural relics that have hints of Indian architecture and culture.

To really understand Hinduism in Cambodia you need to also understand a little bit about this time frame of Cambodian history.

Funan Empire – 1st to 6th Centuries

What we do know that in the 1st to the 6th centuries under what was known as the Kingdom of Funan that Cambodia, parts of Vietnam and Thailand were practicing mainly Hinduism. In fact, from the 1st to the 6th centuries Cambodia was part of what was known as the Funan Empire which covered parts of Thailand Cambodia, and Vietnam.

The name Funan is a Chinese name that was known to be in the Chinese annuals as used as a reference for this area. The visiting Chinese traders, scholars, and others reported back to China and used the name Funan to describe the government and people at this time,

During this period of time, many of the Funan Kings worshiped the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva. The people would have followed and worshiped the same religion that their king worshiped.

Chenla Empire – 6th to 9th Centuries

When the Funan Empire dissolved in 600 BC, the Chinese annals written by the Chinese traders, called the new empire Chenla, Chenla seems to be a loosely defined group of different principalities without a central government.

Cambodia received a lot of this trade and visits from both China and India as Cambodia has a strategic position where both the Indian and the East Asian traders would have merged. During their journeys, both the Chinese and Indians would have stopped off in Cambodia.

Khmer Empire – Early 9th to 15th Centuries

What was known as the Khmer Empire was established in the 9th century. This is era is also known as the Angkor Empire and is still one of the proudest and important times in Cambodian history.

It was during the Khmer Empire where Cambodia changed from worshipping mainly Hinduism to Buddhism. This change of religion happened partway through the Khmer empire.

The Khmer empire was a very powerful period in Cambodian history. The influence of the Khmer empire stretched as far away as Yunnan Province in Southern China to Vietnam to present day Myanmar.

To understand how powerful the Khmer empire, you only need to visit present-day Angkor Wat in Cambodia. This Khmer empire had so much wealth and power that they were able to build impressive structures like Angkor Wat.

The Angkor area and Angkor empire during the peak of its power in the 11th to 13th centuries were one of the world’s largest urban centers of the time. Countries from all over Asia would flock to Angkor.

Sunrise view of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap Cambodia. You can see the 5 pillars.
Sunrise view of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap Cambodia. You can see the 5 pillars.

Angkor Wat – Seat of A Once-Powerful Hindu Empire

The Angkor Wat Park outside Siem Reap Cambodia stands as a testament to this once great Hindu empire. The fact the Angkor temple was originally built as a Hindu temple can get lost in history. The Angkor Wat Temple was built by King Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple to honor the Hindu God Vishnu.

Emperor Suryavarman II

To visit Angkor Wat you really need to know Emperor Suryavarman II the Khmer King from 1113 AD to about 1145 -1150 AD. Emperor Suryavarman II was the builder and architect of the Angkor Wat Temple. Emperor Suryavarman II was also practicing Hinduism so he built Angkor Wat Temple as a dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu.

Why Suryavarman II dedicated the Angkor Wat Temple to the Hindu god Vishu we really do not know. Most of the previous rulers of Cambodia focused their Hinduism on the Hindu god Shiva.

When Emperor Suryavarman II died he was posthumously given the name “Paramavishnuloka” which means “He Who Entered The Heavenly World of Vishnu.”

During his reign, Emperor Suryavarman II had a strong military force, organized government, and major architectural projects as Angkor Wat. He is thought by many historians to be one of the greatest Khmer Emperors to ever live.

Emperor Suryavarman II spent a lot of time and effort in forcing military action with Champa that is in present-day Vietnam. Most of this military action was not successful. There was a short period between 1145 and 1150 where there was some success but it did not last long. Historians are not sure if King Suryavarman II died in one of those battles with Champa.

Emperor Suryavarman II was known as a great diplomat. He established formal diplomatic relations with China as early as 1116 Ad. This lead to increased trade and commerce with China.

One of Emperor Suryavarman II greatest and most lasting achievements is the Angkor Wat Temple complex in present-day Siem Reap Cambodia.

Apsara Bas Relief Stone Carved at Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Apsara Bas Relief Stone Carved at Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat

When people visit Angkor Wat outside Siem Reap, Cambodia they may assume it is a Buddhist temple complex as Buddhism is so prevelant in Cambodia today In fact when you visit Angkor Wat tbere are Buddhist monks through the temple complex.

Angkor Wat was originally built in the first half of the 12th century by Emperor Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple to worship and honor the Hindu god Vishnu.

In the Khmer language, Angkor Wat translates to mean “temple capital city.” The word Angkor means “capital city” and Wat means “temple.” So literally the name Angkor Wat meant the ” temple capital city” or simply “temple city.”

This “temple city,” also known as Angkor Wat, was built as a state temple and city complex that was the commerce and political center of the Khmer empire. In the heart of Angkor Wat city was the Angkor Wat temple that was built to worship the Hindu god Vishnu.

Here are a few things about Angkor Wat and why King Suryavarman II built it originally as a Hindu temple:

  • Khmer Architecture Masterpiece – Angkor Wat is considered to be a masterpiece of Khmer architecture, art, and culture.
  • Largest Temple – The Angkor Wat Temple is the largest temple in the Angkor Wat complex.
  • Faces West – The Angkor Wat temple faces west which is the direction that the Hindu god Vishnu is associated with. Most Khmer temples face east.
  • Five Towers – The five towers of the temple are said to represent the peaks of Mount Meru, which is known to be the home of the Hindu gods.
  • Elaborate works of art – The temple has over 1,860 carved apsaras, hundreds of meters of bas reliefs depicting Hindu legends and scenes from contemporary life.
  • Relief of Emperor Suryavarman II – There is a bas relief of Suryavarman II. He is the first Khmer Emperors to be depicted in art. This bas relief is on the south gallery of Angkor Wats walls and shows him seated on an elaborate wooden dai.
  • Walls and Moat – The temple is surrounded by a large moat and wall. The walls and moats are said to honor the surrounding mountain ranges and sea.
  • 200 acres – The original city of Angkor Wat stretched to more than 200 acres. This area was believed to have included the city, the temple structure, and the Emperor’s palace which was just north of the temple. This was truly a temple within a great city. Only the temple was made of sandstone and the other structures were wood and other materials, so only the temple complex remains.

How To Visit Angkor Wat

Today you can visit Angkor Wat in Siem Reap Cambodia. Many airlines have direct international flights into Siem Reap or you can easily get a connecting flight through Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

In order to visit the Angkor Wat temples and enter the Angkor Wat Park, you will need to have a valid pass. The passes are issued for a specific period of time. To find out more about Angkor Wat and also the pass you can visit the official Angkor Wat website by clicking here.

If you are planning a visit to Cambodia and in particular Angkor Wat it is very good to understand the history and religious background of Cambodia. This will help you understand why Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple for the Hindu god Vishnu – particularly in a country that today is over 95% Buddhist.

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Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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What Was The Main Religion in Cambodia Before Buddhism?